Here’s a first take:
- There are clear tensions between the urgent need to de-clutter and de-layer the railway landscape; the influence of the wider ‘save the union’ project; and the facts on the ground around existing devolution of urban and regional rail (and its clear benefits). One of those devo benefits being the pioneering of the format for contracting services which the DfT has chosen to adopt more widely.
The plan promises to safeguard existing devolutionary projects (London Overground, Merseyrail Electrics etc) and talks about giving local areas more control. But at the same time the dominant theme is command and control from the centre.
It will also be interesting to see the role that the new ‘regional railways’ function will play. Will this be an instrument for extending the benefits of rail devolution to more places and passengers or a ‘big railway’ takeover – but with the odd tea and biscuits sessions with local stakeholders thrown in? Or something in between?
Expect a lot of wrangles too about train liveries and signage. Will the railway look like it is part of a wider project to put the ‘Great’ into Great Britain? Will it reflect the corporations that operate it? Or will it look like it is playing its part in more local public transport networks and identities?
- There’s an early focus on ticketing. In relation to this, city regions already have smart and multi-modal ticketing products which are being developed further. The problem is the price differential with the ticketing products of individual modes (and operators) and the need to accelerate what they can offer (including capping).
The story of how, as a nation, we got to where we are on ticketing is a tortured tale of silo thinking, missed opportunities and false starts. The logic and the lesson is to build outwards from the places where multi-modal travel is most extensive and most needed – the city regions.
Get those islands in place and then fill in the gaps. We don’t need to wander off down any more modal or operator cul-de-sacs or to throw ourselves again at grand ticketing projects at a scale which fail to deliver products and which users weren’t necessarily asking for in the first place.
- Now, more than ever, we need a railway that faces outwards to the people and places it serves. But there’s a danger that the railway turns inward on itself as the ‘big railway’ reasserts itself and everything else is restructured around it.
At the same time, the railways are subject to the consequences of a ‘forever war’ between HMT wanting to slash costs and other parts of Government that understand that we need an expanding rail network to support a green and robust recovery from COVID-19.
- Good to see that the railways are being told to go up a gear on climate resilience and their own environmental policies.
Railways powered by the turbines you can see out of the train window, the greening of the rail estate and greater resilience to the more extreme weather conditions that are already with us will give the railway something it can shout about as well as form part of the wider cross-sector thinking that will be essential if we are to have a hope of meeting ambitious carbon reduction targets (P.S. you can read about what Swiss and Netherlands railways have been doing to get their own house in order on the environment here).
- Delayed gratification? In a former life I led the Save our Railways campaign against rail privatisation – where, among other things, we argued that the structure proposed was way too fragmented and ultimately wouldn’t work.
The original concept of rail privatisation – as a free market with a regulator to ensure fair competition – has been little more than a very expensive pretence for some time. The pre-COVID timetabling nervous breakdowns of the system, and the massive scale of Government support during COVID, has finished it off.
What comes next should be better. But how rapid the transition will be, and how much better it will be, is still very much up for grabs.
Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group